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The 2007 running of the Desert 400 was newsworthy before it even got underway – when the two FPR cars fell off the back of the lorry. There’s always been a bit of a driving standards problem in Bahrain. The campaigns to make people wear seat belts, indicate, drive appropriately in the rain, use car seats for kids and so on are fairly endless. There’s also the problem of working out which is the ‘on’ and which is the ‘off’ ramp on the main freeway which has long confused some of the locals. The trucks carrying the V8s to the circuit were on the exit slip road and following a car which suddenly had second thoughts about coming off the motorway at that point and attempted a u-turn. In the course of the avoiding action, the cars got loose and… there’s your photo opportunity. Anyway, a couple of panels got dinged on Frosty’s car but that was about it as I recall. In the year that passed from the first race to this one, trying to get people interested in V8s and buying tickets had been a major preoccupation. We wanted them to come back, not least because a week or so after the 2006 race we’d had a 24-hour GT event at which we had discovered, at around 2 a.m. one of the hospitality suites held an abandoned stash of Victoria Bitter from the most recent occupants – which brought good cheer to the visiting media when we distributed this unexpected bounty. Paul Morris and his sponsors had been very keen to get ‘Supercar Nights’ going in Bahrain in the interim. There’s an abundance of sports bars in the Kingdom and they’ve all made a real thing of putting on Formula 1 since the circuit was built. There are some bars that are better known for motor racing than others, and the atmosphere can be incredible with guys hollering for their team. I’ve never seen anything like it in the UK or anywhere else. Unfortunately, it all went quiet because none of the drinks companies that sponsored in Supercars had import licences for the Kingdom. We had a bit of success working with Vodafone’s regional partner to do ticket promos and we convinced the local newspapers and car magazine to carry race reports and features. Gulf Air was already on the bus as it is a permanent partner to the circuit and had put some branding on the cars in 2006. It’s a nice way to promote routes out into Oceania, so they were good to go. Some journos travelled across to the Australian GP to cover the race and the non-championship V8 round, and there was a plan to bring lots more of the region’s media to Bathurst… but that went wrong because Bathurst was going to be bang in the middle of Ramadan, and taking Mohammed to The Mountain was perhaps too great a test of faith during the month of fasting. One thing that did come across, however, was a bucket-load of production+ specification VZ Commodores. These had arrived in 2006 for a pro-celebrity race and were then retained in order to form a new regional racing series. It was to be arrive-and-drive stuff for local talent, with a calendar of races across Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi. All of the cars were sourced through Tom Walkinshaw, which meant we were surprised to find only one gas tank in them – in fact aside from the roll cage, extinguishers and exhaust they weren’t all that racy at all. There were some young hotshoes involved, a few of the local campaigners from the various drift, drag and rally series who fancied a go, a number of expat British, American, French and Aussie guys with money to burn and a delightful Saudi businessman who was quite content to drive around in last place provided that the A/C worked OK. Here are some pics from their race at the Desert 400: As a footnote, there was a second batch of cars ordered which arrived for the 2009-10 season if I remember rightly: all of them being VE Commodores with a slightly higher specification. In fact they looked like proper little touring cars. They ran for one season as a two-tier series, then the old VZs were sold off and ended up at the Rockingham circuit in the UK. I saw two of them on eBay this week, although £15,000 for cars that have done three seasons of panel-bashing in the Gulf and nearly a decade of track day work seemed a bit stiff to me. And so on to the race. We had a bit more off-track entertainment than in 2006 – including a big Scalextric replica of the Bahrain circuit complete with Supercars. It was very popular although marshal-inflicted damage ran into hundreds if not thousands of dollars on what are now prized collectibles… And look – a bit of a crowd is forming. After the blacked-up guy in 2006, this year's entry in the 'Is that entirely appropriate?' entertainment category was made by a bunch of guys who may or may not have seen Australia before: In the races, the weekend pretty much belonged to Mark Winterbottom: winning the first two races in what is my all-time favourite livery, the Cobra tribute Falcon. And I say that as more of a Holden fan. Here are some pics: But on the track the hero of the event was Craig Lowndes without a doubt. He came off second-best in a bit of four-wide argy-bargy on the back straight at the start of the first race, pinballed into the wall on the inside of the circuit and came to rest in the path of the rest of the field. From memory Paul Morris was involved – he seemed to be on a bit of a mission through the weekend. All of this helped Frosty to a fairly dominant performance but in race 2 Lowndes got the bit between his teeth and went through the field before finally winning race 3. Here's the shunt: We had another, rather smaller after party when the show was over, and was at least able to say I supped a pint with Lowndes after his stellar job during the day. After that they went home and interest in V8 racing sort of fizzled out a bit among the powers-that-be. Our main preoccupation was the regional series and the deal to promote the winner for a proper V8 drive with Garry Rogers – this being Fahad Al Musalam. When Fahad didn’t exactly cover himself with glory the Bahrainis shrugged their shoulders and moved on. I missed the 2008 race because of family commitments back home, then the V8s missed the 2009 race, so it would be 2010 before I got to see the cars and the guys again - although here's a nice shot from the 08 race. The 2010 weekend was when Jamie Whincup couldn’t be touched and much of the four-wide hard-bitten classic touring car racing of the first two years was absent. The race itself was held early in the year during the run-up to the Grand Prix, which meant that there was neither time or money spent to promote it, and you also got the feeling that it was held at the start of the year to get the contract over and done with as soon as possible and consign the Desert 400 to memory. I’ll never lose my affection for the series or fail to be proud of being part of those events and I’ll miss that big V8 howl in future… although I’m intrigued by the new V6s and let’s face it even the Sierras sounded amazing in their day. I’ve got my slot cars (Tander's Toll Holden and Lowndes's Vodafone Falcon - looking out for a few more but they're crazy money), a few photos and a bucket of happy memories. That’ll do for now.
I just got this Scalextric version of Craig Lowndes' Falcon from an extremely helpful dealer down your way. Used but plenty good enough for me - no qualms about putting a 'collectible' on the track. Which reminds me, I hadn't explained my Auslot forum name properly. I used to work at the Bahrain circuit and the annual visit of the V8s for the Desert 400 was the highlight of the year. I worked at the race in 2006-07, missed 08 due to being back in the UK but was in place for the final outing in 2010. I've got a set of pictures from behind the scenes at the 2006-07 races that I hope you might enjoy. I know that the overseas races got a lot of stick - justifiable on some counts - but a lot of effort went in to getting things right and a lot of good times were had. Here's SBR setting up shop after the cars were unloaded. I've known JC since Formula Ford days so it was nice to see a friendly face. As ever, he takes life in his stride and wasn't all that fussed by the new surroundings. Here was a sure sign that we're not in Kansas now, Dorothy - rebranding the Jack Daniel's and Jim Beam cars. You can drink in Bahrain, but it's just best to be discreet about it. In eight years of working with the circuit we had one complaint about alcohol advertising at the race - from an English woman who'd converted and married a local guy. Still, I think it's pretty cool that we had unique cars - especially the Chevrolet branded cars in 2007. Miss V8 had to cover up a bit more than usual as well. Ah, well... This bloke turned up in the Safety Car. This is my colleague Freddie going out and finding the right team staff to go and talk to throughout the event. Being the only single white female involved in motor racing on the island, it made life much easier for her to go and ask if we needed the teams to do anything. Can't think why. One thing that Bahrain leads the way in for F1 is entertainment for the paying public. In fact, one of the reasons why the grandstands look a bit empty on the F1 coverage is that people only go to the races to be seen to be at the races, and would much rather be spending time with the family watching live entertainment or shopping, smoking shisha pipes and cramming in the calories. However I think they blew the budget on F1 that year, because the only vaguely Australian-orientated entertainment was this fella - I still have no idea what he was up to. A bit more cultural exchange. If this little guy was on the grid then it probably means he's a royal and due deference is required, rather than pointing at the 'Over 18s only' notice. And a local grid girl. Just don't look at the grandstand. Please. Oh, all right then. Now, a word about the crowds. In the first year they were not big but that was sort-of to be expected. Formula 1 had started small in 2004, got smaller in 2005 and then we did a three-month campaign of cultural and community events, brought in all the jamboree in the public areas and the concerts and so on and suddenly shifted about 80% of available seats. We did all right with the V8s despite not having a fraction of the promotion and a lot of people were watching the curious Aboriginal performers and the stilt walkers in kangaroo suits and eating Dairy Queen rather than the on-track action. But there's no way that we could say it was a vast crowd... right up until I was sent forth to the Media Centre with the agreed crowd figure of 30,000. The sort of sledging I was subjected to on that one hasn't been seen since the days of Merv Hughes but it was all in good spirit. I haven't got any photos of when the drivers all went off to fly kestrels and ride camels and do all the other tourist schtick for the press. After doing it with every single visiting series it becomes a bit ho-hum, but I will say that while all the guys were enormously helpful, huge hats-off to John Bowe - it's always the same with touring cars, whether V8s or DTM or BTCC, the old stagers are the ones who do the off-track work with fans and media with more grace than anyone else in motor sport. Our other star performers for off-track requests were Jason Richards and Paul Morris, who spent most of the weekend hanging out with us rather than doing their day jobs. The FPR team couldn't do enough to help us (well, Freddie!) and Jason Bargwanna took over DJ'ing on the breakfast radio show for a few minutes. Great fun. There were of course one or two who didn't want to get involved in the cultural exchange or help promote their sport. An Aussie mate of mine living in Qatar flew in to attend the race, bumped into his hero in the public area but got sent off with a flea in his ear when asking for a signature on the $150 shirt he'd just bought... go figure. And so on to the races - these are the best shots I have of Jason Bright's day to enter the story books as the inaugural winner. We had plenty of great racing going on, for once you could see some real overtaking in Bahrain and with cars four-wide at times it was a hoot. Oh yes - and this happened. All in all it was a great weekend - one of my favourites in 24 years of doing this sort of stuff. At the end of it all we had a semi-official 'after party' in the one vaguely presentable nightclub downtown. For those that stayed the course until closing time, there was also a much less presentable nightclub down the road that would stay open until the last person left. The following morning some suitably refreshed veterans of the inaugural Desert 400 - circuit staff, media and team members - stepped out into the sunshine, shook hands and looked forward to doing it all again next year before staggering off to enjoy the sleep of the virtuous. I'll post 2007 soon unless you're all bored...